Biomimicry professor receives prestigious NSF CAREER Award


UA assistant professor in Biology, Dr. Henry Astley.

Dr. Henry Astley, assistant professor in Department of Biology and the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.

Dr. Henry Astley is the latest UA faculty member to be awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award. An assistant professor in both the Department of Biology and the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, Astley was awarded $1,109,966 for his project "Musculoskeletal Biomechanics and Control of Limbless Locomotion." This five-year project will begin on May 1, 2021. The CAREER Program supports the early development of pre-tenure professors and aims to develop their careers, not only as outstanding researchers but also as effective, committed educators.

Astley is a faculty member of UA’s Biomimicry Research & Innovation Center, an interdisciplinary group of businesses, faculty, and graduate students who collaborate to find nature-inspired solutions to tackle complex human problems. His research focuses on the biomechanics of animal locomotion at the intersection between biology and physics. The grant will fund Astley’s research on snake locomotion, with applications such as helping to create snake-inspired robots. These robots could be useful in a search for survivors in an unpredictable terrain such as earthquake rubble.

Penny is a Vietnamese beauty snake and lab mascot for Dr. Henry Astley.

Penny is a Vietnamese beauty snake and lab mascot for Dr. Henry Astley.

“This latest research will provide insights beyond snakes into how animals manage competing demands during locomotion, particularly the need to simultaneously meet mechanical and control demands with the same musculoskeletal system,” says Astley. “Furthermore, insights into limbless locomotion can benefit snake-inspired robots, a target of bio-inspired robotics due to the exceptional ability of snakes to move through complex, cluttered, and confined spaces.”

“We are thrilled that the NSF has recognized Dr. Astley’s innovative research by awarding him this prestigious CAREER grant,” says Dr. Stephen Weeks, chair of the biology department. “This award will propel his research lab into new biomechanics realms while also helping to teach our local community about the fundamentals of biomimicry.”

For the education outreach component of the CAREER award, Astley will partner with Dr. Lara Roketenetz at UA’s Field Station at Bath Nature Preserve and ROBOTIS Inc. to provide a unique outreach opportunity to nearby high schools serving economically disadvantaged youth, leveraging a new type of feedback-based robotic programming to eliminate the need for traditional coding.

“We will use a combination of live snakes and robot snakes to teach students about biomimicry with a bio-inspired robotics design experience,” explains Astley. “The key innovation is that these robots have position sensors, so rather than teaching them how to code, we can eliminate ‘coding anxiety’ and the students can just record a series of positions, like stop-motion animation, and have the system ‘play it back.’ They will observe a snake’s movements and replicate the slithering by bending the robot into a series of wave shapes, and the robot will go through those movements.”

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